Our economy is still heavily reliant on the price of a barrel of oil. But as we move, sometimes lurchingly, toward diversification, the 21st century digital economy increasingly seems like our logical course correction.
We sought leaders in several sectors who, while they’re not household names in the Lafayette area, are doing amazing things in their respective fields: Arun Lakhotia, a native of India and computer scientist at UL Lafayette who in 2015 capitalized on decades of research and started a fast-growing cyber security company, Cythereal; Cian Robinson, executive director of Lafayette General Foundation who previously directed two computer science-based research centers at UL and serves as an adjunct instructor in the university’s B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration; Denise Broussard, the chief financial and information officer for AvEx, Aviation Exteriors Louisiana Inc., which paints large aircraft for major national and international clients in hangers at its headquarters at Acadiana Regional Airport in New Iberia; and John Thompson, a native of South Africa who co-founded and serves as chief operating officer of Exepron, a cloud-based company that helps major clients in a host of industries streamline their procedures and practices with digital technology.
Our questions were general, but their responses led back to the idea that tech, in one form or another, is at the heart of Lafayette’s future prosperity.
How is the downturn in the economy affecting your sector?
Denise Broussard, AvEx: It has not. If anything it has helped because the airlines have saved money on fuel, putting more to their bottom line, hence giving them more money for things like paint jobs.
Arun Lakhotia, Cythereal, UL Lafayette: The downturn did not have much impact on my sector. According to a recent article in Forbes, there are a million unfilled jobs in cybersecurity.
Cian Robinson, Lafayette General Foundation: The inability of patients to meet payments for high deductible plans and large co-pays is producing a significant amount of bad debt. Additional cuts at the state and federal level have resulted in a significant drop in revenue. The number of elective procedures has declined, as many folks have either had their deductibles reset for the fiscal year (and coming fiscal year) or are off of COBRA. The rest of the U.S. had already seen a downturn in the health care sector, so we had been fortunate. Our downturn was late to arrive, but packed a perfect storm of variables to hit particularly hard.
John Thompson, co-founder and COO of Exepron: The stronger dollar has increased our pricing and softened sales with currency-adjusted pricing.
Are you bullish or bearish on 2017 and why?
AL: Very bullish. Almost every week we hear of major cyber attacks. Everyone is in the game, nation-states are setting up cyber armies, companies are employing cyber spies, criminals are turning the Internet into one big ATM. There is tremendous un-met need for cybersecurity. Computers and networking are permeating each and every facet of our lives. And all of these need to be secured. So far we have barely scratched the surface.
DB: The pricing within the paint market is pretty steady. We have about four competitors within the United States and depending on what the customer is looking for — price or quality — that is how the contract is awarded. The paint market doesn’t really fluctuate that much like other markets.
CR: Bullish! Our facilities will continue to run at or near capacity. Lafayette General Health’s facilities are Acadiana’s hospitals of choice, seeing hundreds of thousands of patients. We are the area’s ONLY community-owned, nonprofit health system. While we all want a healthier society, our volume should only increase in 2017. Now that LGMC is a Level II Trauma Program, we are seeing patients from all over Acadiana because of the high level, life-saving resources we can provide.
JT: Bullish. The world has gone digital: Companies are looking for next-generation proven digital solutions to compete and replace legacy solutions.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles and opportunities for your industry in 2017?
JT: Stronger dollar for our export market share, but stronger domestic U.S. demand should offset this. Markets lack awareness of opportunities to eliminate wasteful scheduling practices in large projects.
DB: The labor force has always been problematic for us. Today’s workforce is just not the same as it was 20 years ago. We can learn the new methods to motivate the Xs, Ys and Zs, but the bottom line is there are only a handful in our sector who will commit to hard work as a way of climbing up the ladder. All of our managers today started here at the bottom and worked their way up, and today they make a very good salary.
CR: Health care’s focus will continue to be optimizing efficiencies. We strive to deliver the highest quality of care at the lowest possible cost. An overall industry opportunity could be downward pressure on society as a whole to utilize health care appropriately. For example, misuse of the emergency room is very costly, and patients should use their primary care physician’s office, walk-in clinics and urgent care centers for non-life threatening conditions.
We also look at workforce development as both a challenge and an opportunity. The need for health care professionals, specifically nurses, surgery technicians and doctors, has never been more acute. If you go to www.lafayettegeneral.com/ careers.aspx and search on the key word “nurse” you will find 188 jobs (as of this writing) open. We have partnered with our local higher education institutions (SLCC, ULL, LSU, LSU-E, to name a few) regarding the education and training of doctors, nurses and surgery technicians. Most recently we implemented a nurse residency program to increase first-year nurse retention and continued training. We are a graduate medical education location (UHC and LGMC) via our public-private partnership with the state and LSU. Overall, we look forward to growing the local workforce, and thus economy, via health care careers.
What’s the next big thing — perhaps something few outside your profession are aware of — that you anticipate emerging within your industry?
CR: Technology in health care is advancing at an amazing pace. All Lafayette General Health facilities have an interconnected electronic medical record. The next step is to unite larger health systems together until eventually all EMRs are linked together. Our connectivity has led the way to fantastic telemedicine opportunities. We currently offer telemedicine via LPSS and St. Martin Parish school systems. We are looking to expand this offering in 2017 to both primary and secondary education institutions. We will also continue to offer workplace telemedicine to those employers interested in having it as part of the employees’ sick and wellness plans. Two examples of this are our partnerships with Stuller and LCG. We are also exploring other telemedicine opportunities and hope to have several exciting announcements in 2017.
In addition to telemedicine, we have been successful in launching the Healthcare Innovation Fund. This fund, which is part of the Lafayette General Foundation, invests in start-up health care based companies. Our process involves using internal health care subject matter experts to vet the company as well as our acumen in reviewing/ understanding the business/marketplace opportunities. Once vetted, the companies not only receive an investment from the fund (usually equity based but also can be debt), but also a contract. This moves the company from pre-valuation/ pre-revenue to valuation and revenue. Finally, the company gets to use the health system as a “Living Laboratory” where they can hone the product/ service offerings.
AL: We are at the dawn of the age of the Internet of Things. There are already more ‘Things’ on the Internet than people. We are going from smartphones, to smart homes, to smart cars and smart highways. And most of these Things are not secure, and most people do not have a clue about security. Add to it that there are not enough computer security professionals. There is 0 percent unemployment in cybersecurity. There are tremendous opportunities all around.
DB: It’s hard to say with the Trump administration what will happen. It will interesting to me how he will handle trade agreements for other countries that may bring jobs back to the states and how that will impact companies like Boeing. Also, technology is changing the way we do things; hopefully it will make its way into the paint world and make our job easier.
JT: All future successful companies will be digitally driven: not many are aware that digital systems are the next big thing in business efficiency. Not the “Internet of Things,” but this has moved to the “Digitization of Things” as the next wave.
What, if any, roles are there in your sector for displaced oilfield workers?
DB: Our history with oilfield workers has been when the oilfield comes back those workers usually go back to the oilfield. It is difficult for us to compete with the pay scale the oilfield offers.
AL: There is a dearth of cybersecurity professionals. Over a million positions are currently unfilled, and the need will only increase. With a little bit of retraining, displaced oilfield workers can learn to manage the security of data centers, install security products, audit security of enterprise network, sell security products and train others. None of these jobs require computer science skills. The operational and troubleshooting skills gained in oilfield may serve many of these professionals well in transitioning to the cyber world.
CR: We have been actively working with our educational partners, and in particular SLCC, to provide retraining opportunities to oilfield workers. Employees who come from the oil and gas industry are hard-working, dedicated individuals who do well in a health care environment. That said, many of their skills, specifically technical, are not necessarily directly transferable. So we encourage these workers to meet with our local highereducation folks to craft a path forward should they want a career in health care.
JT: Construction and infrastructure development. Short term: disaster recovery in Louisiana.
If you had a child entering college who wanted to stay in Lafayette (Acadiana), what careers would you steer him or her toward?
AL: I don’t believe in steering people. I am not too presumptive to believe I know better. I prefer to support a child in following his/her passion. Lafayette is pretty diversified, and a child would find mentors, if not opportunities, in any career (s) he wishes to follow. We are indeed limited in depth in many areas, so some careers would require a lot more struggle than others.
DB: Some occupations will never go away — medical, legal, technology and taxes. The medical field offers a wide range of occupations from dental/orthodontic to anesthesiologist/general practitioner. It seems we can’t do anything without an attorney these days; I think attorneys spend the most in advertising dollars these days. Technology is where it’s at — whether its computer-based or scientific research, we will be astounded by the next breakthrough. And taxes. Death and taxes we will never avoid. Accountants, bookkeepers, actuaries are all great fields to study.
Going to college is great, but it’s not for everyone. I believe you have to follow your heart — do what you love. Find something realistic within your passion that will support your lifestyle.
CR: Health care careers in direct patient care are a premium. There is a very real shortage of nurses (RN), surgery technicians, radiation technologists, doctors and case managers throughout the United States. If not in direct patient care, we would suggest health care-based information technology (software development, database management and network/hardware) as well as engineering. Overall, jobs in the STEM environment are plentiful, seeking talented and dedicated employees.
JT: Engineering: any discipline.
What more could Lafayette’s leadership (including government and higher ed) do to advance your sector? Are there resources you wish you had?
CR: As stated above, workforce development is a large pain point. Having both government and higher education align their limited resources to deliver well-trained, educated and driven employees is a must. The state’s budget is a significant challenge. Constitutionally, the only way the state can balance budget deficits is on the backs of higher education and health care. For each of the past eight or nine years we have seen cuts to funding. This has affected our ability to care for our citizens as well as train, through our public-private partnership with LSU, future doctors (graduate medical education). The state currently spends more to incarcerate people than it does on education. It has been proven that if you invest in higher education, you reduce health care costs as well as incarceration rates. By disinvesting in health care you create the inability to effectively care for the citizens of the state.
JT: Attract IT companies to Lafayette with preferential taxes for large companies and start-up incentives for small initiatives, then secure their tenure by developing a large pool of competitive IT talent.
DB: We need an A&P (aircraft mechanic) school in South Louisiana. There used to be one at the Lafayette airport years ago. Since 9/11 many aircraft mechanics have left the industry and because there was little demand for A&Ps during the years that followed, attendance to the A&P schools dropped. Now airlines are consolidating, building their fleets, expanding their routes and in need of A&Ps. Also, New Iberia has one of the longest runways in Louisiana at 8,000 feet; there is so much capability for this airport which is right off Hwy. 90 with lots of available space.
AL: Lafayette is a special place. When someone sets aim for the stars, the community lines up to offer their shoulder to step on. I have benefited tremendously by the support from the university’s Research Office, INNOV8 Acadiana, Opportunity Machine and many individuals. Thanks to their mentoring and support, I have been able to attract venture funding from a New York City VC firm, Valmiki Capital.